The exhibition Grassroots Democracy: the Campaign for Disability Rights explores just some of the events and people who led reform and campaigned and for change.

From the deinstitutionalisation movements of the 1970s and 1980s led by activists like John Roarty to the more recent campaign for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, we profile here just some of the people from around Australia who have made a difference.

Portrait of Lesley Hall

A Conversation Starter

As a person with a disability I often hear small children ask their parents “Why does that man have wheels?” The parent is often embarrassed that their child has even verbalised this question. However I see these moments as conversation starters. A conversation starter is a question or topic that creates a dialogue between two or more people. These ‘starters’ can often be difficult, but without them one can be left with awkward silences, unanswered questions and unresolved societal challenges.

This exhibition Grassroots Democracy: The Campaign for Disability Rights is no different. It is meant to be an active conversation with the visitor about the disability rights movement in this country, exploring key milestones of change and introducing you to the people who have been behind that change.

The disability rights campaign has a decades long story. The same time that moratorium marches hit the streets of Australia to protest against Vietnam, so too was another grassroots movement making their voices heard. Deinstitutionalisation of Australians with disabilities was a result of many, often unrecognised, people who wanted a better way of living, and control over their lives. Greater access to public transport and buildings, employment and study, family and community, was fought for by the campaign, and while there are still many gaps and omissions, this exhibition hopes to recognise just some of the campaign leaders of the past and present.

Recently that campaign achieved a major step forward. The idea to create a national disability system that is based on insurance and investment principles has emerged. Australia has been asked to embark upon a new challenge to fund a service system that is supportive of people with disabilities. The past reality has been a crisis-driven disability care system that has had no safety net.

The ‘Every Australian Counts’ Campaign was the starting point of the broader conversation with the general public around the need for change, and the need for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). It was about discussing the current inequality. This campaign highlighted the deficit that exists for people with disabilities to live their lives. It also stressed to each and every person that disability can touch the lives of anybody at any time.

The campaign’s use of social media connected people around the issue wherever they lived. They were encouraged to visit their local member of parliament and raise the topic, to share information over a cuppa at one of the many ‘Disabiliteas’, come together at the public rallies and lend their support and name to the campaign.

This grassroots political action led to disability being front and centre of the Federal Government policy and budget when it was finally passed into legislation by the Gillard Government.

As we move towards the full roll out of an NDIS, we need to keep the conversations open and ongoing with each other; we need to draw from the strength and knowledge of the disability rights movement.

Guest Curator, Ashley Heenan
Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka

Thanks goes to the following contributors:

  • Curatorial Advice and Writing: Sarah Barton
  • Guest Contributors: Dr George Taleporos, Graeme Innes and Dr Rhonda Galbally

This is just the beginning:

It was through conversations with countless individuals who are passionate advocates, family members, or policy makers, that we were able to create this exhibition as it now appears. However we know that there are more conversations that need to occur, so we can tell the full story of the disability rights movement in Australia. So like any good and robust conversation, we want to hear from you, as we see this as a “living exhibition” that can be added to over time.

React

In the late 19th century churches, rotary groups and individuals, aware of the link between poverty and disability, identified the need to support children with disabilities and their families. Across Australia, they established schools, trusts and accommodation facilities for disabled children and adults. There were too many to name but examples include Yooralla kindergarten for “physically weak and defective children” (The Herald, Tuesday November 12th 1918), which started in Drummond Street in Carlton, Melbourne, and educated children who were outpatients at the nearby Children’s Hospital. In Perth, Claremont Mental Hospital (1904 to 1986) had up to 1000 people with dementia and intellectual disabilities, as well as people with severe psychiatric conditions.

In 1918 World War 1 veterans were returning home injured and unable to work. There were no welfare payments at the time for these injuries, so families struggled with poverty, sickness, disability and unemployment with no formal support from government. This was one of the reasons why the RSL was formed to provide support to returned veterans.

To meet the growing demand for services, for both adults and children, disability charities developed strong links to the business and professional communities. Through this they were able to attract volunteers and financial contributions from those who sought to make a difference to improve the lives of “Crippled Children” as they were called at the time.

Organizations such as Yooralla in Victoria and The Society for Crippled Children in NSW cultivated generous benefactors, and in time accumulated enough funds to build residential facilities for crippled children whose families were no longer able to care for them. State governments across the country also invested in residential institutions for the disabled. For example, when the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne moved from Carlton to Parkville the old building became St Nicholas Hospital for Crippled Children.

St Nicholas was home to some of the state’s most severely disabled children and many of them died there from starvation or neglect. A young therapist named Rosemary Crossley went to work at St Nicholas in the late 1970s and worked to find a way to help the children, many of whom were unable to speak, to communicate.

Anne McDonald was one of Rosemary’s star pupils and quickly learned to read and communicate using an alphabet board and a head pointer. Anne asked to leave St Nicholas but the management refused, questioning her ability to communicate her wishes. Anne took her fight all the way to Victoria’s Supreme Court and was ultimately judged able to communicate. She was released into the care of Rosemary Crossley and her partner Chris Borthwick where she lived until her death in 2010.

Anne completed secondary education and gained an arts degree from Deakin University. She constantly advocated for the rights of people who cannot speak and won a National Disability Award in 2009 for her work as an advocate. Anne and Rosemary wrote a book about their experiences called Annie’s Coming Out, which was made into an award winning feature film. Anne and Rosemary became part of a broader push to close down all disability institutions and move people out to live in the community.

In his book Captives of Care John Roarty describes his arrival at Weemala in Ryde NSW as a sixteen year old: “At the time there were five young people at Weemala (out of about sixty-five residents) – three girls and two boys. We were all introduced that day. The girls were up on the top floor and all the males on the bottom floor…. In the afternoon the nurses came to put me to bed at 3.30pm, which I thought was terrible because I didn’t like going to bed early.”

Roarty fought back on that day and on many occasions during his 58 years of living in an institution. John Roarty helped set up a residents committee at Weemala to refuse what he saw as petty interventions in their lives. Patients were not allowed to leave the institution except for “approved annual leave” and were not allowed to use motorised wheelchairs as they were seen as an impediment to the smooth running of the institution. John took his complaints about the running of the institution to A Current Affair in support of a campaign to have an 8.30pm curfew lifted and for the residents to be able to move about independently in motorised wheelchairs.

In the 1990s Australia, like other western countries, closed down many of these large institutions for the disabled and established smaller community based housing that aimed to allow disabled people to live their lives more integrated with the rest of society.

Photo Credits

  • Swim for serviceman at the 103rd Australian General Hospital, 1944, State Library of Victoria Collection.
  • St Nicholas Hospital, 5 January 1977, J.T. Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
  • St Mary’s Home for the Deaf, c.1950s, State Library of Victoria.

Protest

In the post war period charitable institutions were ubiquitous in the lives of disabled people and were also responsible for the few public portrayals of disability. They understood the power of the media and were not afraid to enlist their help to raise money. Inspired by the success of Channel Seven’s Royal Children’s Hospital Appeal which began in 1957, Channel Nine agreed to host a 24 hour Yooralla Telethon on the 27th and 28th of February 1959. The first telethon featured the big stars of the time: Graham Kennedy, Eric Pearce, Bert Newton and an array of crippled children, cute enough to bring a tear to the eye and prompt a generous donation to Yooralla.

From 1954 the Miss Australia Quest also raised huge amounts of money for the Spastic Society to pay staff wages and contribute to new buildings for children with disabilities. A “Cradle to Grave” welfare mentality developed where children were institutionalised at a very young age, and kept through education, medical rehabilitation, and in adult housing until they died.

Through events like the telethons and Miss Australia quests, the public only ever saw disabled people as passive recipients of care and sympathy. The glamour associated with the beauty quests stood in stark contrast to the images of the poor crippled children they were raising funds for, and continued to reinforce the passivity of recipients. Disabled people were becoming angry about being used by these huge fundraising efforts; they decided to make their voices heard.

In 1981, The International Year of the Disabled Person, a group of women from the Women With Disabilities Feminist Collective decided to protest against the Miss Victoria quest that was being held at the St Kilda Town Hall. As the event was being televised live they knew that they would get publicity for their message, especially if they could get up onto the stage under the direct gaze of the television cameras and disrupt the pageant.

Lesley Hall led the protest the first year and climbed onto the stage holding a simple hand made sign saying “The Spastic Society Oppresses Women”. Lesley later explained “the beauty quest as a form of fundraiser for disability charities was particularly odious, given its focus on physical perfection as the norm all must attain if they are to be fully accepted into society.” (Women with Disabilities Victoria, Claiming Our Future Published 2010).

Inspired by the success of the Melbourne Protests which continued throughout the 1980s, Joan Hume lead a small band of protesters from People With Disabilities NSW at similar functions in Sydney. It was not until 2000 however that the Spastic Society hosted the final Miss Australia quest, at last acknowledging that the quest was no longer a fitting way to raise money for people with disabilities.

Another group to voice their dissatisfaction over the role of big charities in the lives of disabled people called themselves PENI (People for Equality Not Institutionalization). PENI members staged a month long sit in at the Blind Institute in St Kilda Road in a cold, wet August of 1986. A young woman in a wheelchair turned up and wanted to join in the protest. Her name was Katie Ball and she was to become a proud and defiant activist disability rights campaign in the 1990s.

Katie and a band of wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments staged several protests about the inaccessibility of public transport. Katie would thumb-cuff herself to a tram disrupting the entire network, she would then complain because the police refused to arrest her. Katie believed in disability pride and declared that “We need to be proud of who we are and I’d even like to see us have our own Mardi Gras.” (Untold Desires 1994). Katie died of breast cancer in 2003 leaving a husband, two children and a community who remembered her as a great agitator for change for disabled people.

In 2003 the Victoria government put forward a 35 year plan to make the public transport network fully accessible which further enraged activists who wanted a much shorter time frame. While public transport is now more accessible for people with mobility impairments, huge gaps in the network still exist. A 2012 protest in Melbourne by a group of teenagers and young people highlight that this is an ongoing issue.

Photo Credits

  • Lesley Hall on stage at the Miss Victoria quest, 1981, Riley and Epherema Collection, State Library of Victoria collection.
  • Deaf Services Network Poster by Mark Trinham, Red Letter Press 1990, State Library of Victoria Collection

Change

Living independently in the community and accessing study, jobs and marriage have been a key catalyst for many activists. Rob McNamara was a student at Monash University in the early 1970s and became editor of the student newspaper Lot’s Wife. He was also involved in the Monash Association of Students and undoubtedly developed his sense of social justice at this time.

Rob had muscular dystrophy and needed support to live independently and in the early 1980s was instrumental in the establishment of DASSI (Disability Attendant Support Service Incorporated). DASSI was the first consumer-controlled, self managed attendant support service in Australia (Touching The Corners by Rob McNamara 2005). Rob credits deaf educationalist Pierre Gorman with introducing him to the ideas of the social model of disability. Gorman was well travelled and it’s likely that he had contact with disabled people in other countries. The social model of disability clarifies that it is the social barriers, such as steps, footpaths, building access and a lack of information in alternative formats, that disable individuals rather than their own personal impairments.

Throughout the 1990s increasing numbers of disabled people were moving out of institutions to live in the community. While the institutional model would persist on a smaller scale with five-person “Community Residential Units”, many people found freedom, attended universities, formed intimate relationships, got politicised and formed a range of grassroots organisations that were led by people with disabilities.

People with disabilities were largely invisible in the media, but in 1992 Sydney comedian Steady Eddy (Christopher Widdows) changed that with appearances on shows such as The Midday Show and Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. Steady Eddy made jokes about his disability that allowed people to laugh with him rather than at him. He was less concerned with the systemic failures of society however and found most of his best jokes around the quirks of his own body and people’s reactions to a man who always looked like he might be drunk.

Around the time of the new millennium a younger generation of disabled people were coming of age with expectations of jobs, housing, sex and being included in all aspects of society. Many of them such as Stella Young had benefited from state school integration policies that supported their inclusion in mainstream schools. This new generation graduated with the same expectations and hopes for life as their non-disabled peers.

In 2002, Melbourne community television station C31 enlisted Producer Sarah Barton to make a show presented by people with disabilities that would appeal to a broad audience. Sarah had won awards for an earlier documentary about sex and disability called Untold Desires and was also the parent of a young girl with a disability. No Limits first went to air in 2003 and featured George Taleporos performing stand up as “George Walker” and the first media appearance of Stella Young. This was the beginning of Stella Young’s media career, over the following decade she would become Australia’s most prominent and articulate voice on disability.

More than 200 episodes were produced over 11 years and the show became one of the most popular and awarded community television shows seen on all community stations across the country. Stories came in from around the country and gave prominence to voices such as Marlene Katene (a music journalist from Queensland who interviews high profile stars using an electronic communication device), Kath Duncan, Steve Hurd, Macca the gadget man and many more. Importantly it also shone a light on many of the systemic issues facing people with disability that prevent them being fully included in society such as lack of employment, poor access to public transport, poverty and isolation.

In 2014 Stella Young won Best Newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Soon after she delivered a TED talk that used her characteristic wit to explain why disabled people hated being described as “inspirational”. The talk went viral and on her trip to America on a leadership scholarship people who had seen her TED talk frequently recognized her in the street. Stella’s profile was growing by the day and she had plans to tour England and America with her comedy show Tales From the Crip in 2015. On December 6th 2014 Stella died suddenly at the age of 32, leaving the disability community grieving the loss of its brightest star. Her memorial was attended by more than 800 people at the Melbourne Town Hall and was broadcast live on ABC television.

Photo Credits

  • Stella Young with the cast and crew of No Limits on set. Photo courtesy of Sarah Barton.
  • ‘We all have the right to…’ Poster for Western Region Accommodation for People with Intellectual Disabilities by Dianna Wells, 1988 State Library of Victoria collection
  • Home Board Scheme Poster by Dianna Wells, 1987, State Library of Victoria collection.

Unite

From the 1970s onward there had been a growing mistrust between disabled people and the charities and service provider organisations that existed to support them. Disabled people complained that most of the board positions and paid jobs in the sector were taken by non-disabled people, people without a lived experience of what it is like. Disabled people remained in poverty and did not have a seat at the table when decisions were being made about their lives.

In 1992 the first Carer’s Awareness Week was held promoting the message that carers need care too. Throughout the 1990s the carers movement gained momentum as they successfully sold their message that anyone can become a carer; especially as the population ages and many find themselves caring for elderly parents as well as young children with disabilities. Within 10 years the carers movement had become an electoral force and had brought the issue of support for carers to the consciousness of politicians. Where disabled people has always been marginalised, the carers movement became mainstream, yet they all agreed that the disability support system was in crisis and in urgent need of a major overhaul.

In 2007 the Rudd Labor government was elected and Bill Shorten was appointed to the new role of Parliamentary Secretary for Disability, a role than many thought was a snub to Shorten’s political aspirations. Instead of sulking about this unglamorous role, Shorten quickly engaged with the disability sector – carers, disabled people and service providers and embraced the need for major reform.

Bruce Bonyhady was a parent, a carer and also the Chair of one of the country’s biggest disability service providers Yooralla. As an economist he was interested in how to reform the disability support system and saw value in an idea from John Walsh to move disability support from a crisis driven welfare model to an insurance model. This model would invest in early intervention with a view to cost savings in the long term. With support from Bill Shorten, the Productivity Commission was charged with investigating the feasibility of a National Disability Insurance Scheme and other options to fund life-time care for people with disabilities. John Walsh was appointed to the commission.

It was important that all sections of the disability community were united if the campaign for reform was to succeed. The campaign used the slogan “Every Australian Counts” and an organisation of the same name was set up to encourage grassroots involvement across Australia. People were asked to share their story of why a National Disability Insurance Scheme was needed. Many stories of hardship caused by lack of resources were exposed and the decision makers began to understand the desperate urgency for reform.

Road shows were organised to get the message of reform out to the community. Dr Rhonda Galbally represented the point of view of people with disabilities while Bruce Bonyhady spoke as a parent and representative of service providers. While the different sections of the movement grumbled about each other behind closed doors, publicly the disability sector was united in its demand for reform and the introduction of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The NDIS Act was passed in March 2013 allowing for the roll out of test sites in each state and territory, with the roll out of the full program to commence progressively from July 2016.

On the sticky note for this panel:

While the NDIS should provide the support that people with disability need to live ordinary lives, systemic injustice remains in the area of employment and representation of people with disability in our media. This campaign for full human rights for disabled people is not yet over.

Photo Credits

Every Australian Counts, placard donated by the Every Australian Counts campaign.

What a Difference!

Then there is Bruce Bonyhady …[who] came up with the killer idea for disability. This was to develop a social insurance scheme similar to our universal healthcare scheme – Medicare. When you become sick in Australia you feel quite secure in knowing that all of your healthcare costs will be covered. Bruce designed the core of the scheme – a National Disability Insurance Scheme that would do the same for disability. Bruce’s scheme proposed that if a person is ill and then becomes disabled from that illness, or if you become disabled from an injury, or if your child is born with a disability at birth – you would be covered for everything you needed right at the beginning so that you could immediately participate as fully as possible in life.

I knew as soon as I heard about it, that this idea would completely reform disability. It would mean that being disabled would not deny people the ability to live the fullest of lives along with everyone else, no longer the most miserable life isolated and shut out. What a difference. Bruce’s idea exhilarated me. It was a way forward in an area that seemed so intractable. The idea was audacious, big: one that could turn the wold of disability as we knew it on its head.

I knew that without everyone together – people with disabilities, carers and even the common enemy – the service sector – we would never be able to achieve the major reform put forward by Bruce. So I set about creating an Alliance of people with disabilities, carers and the service sector. We developed a new non-government Alliance – the National Disabilities and Carers Alliance – with the carers peak organisation (Carers Australia), the people with disabilities organisation (the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations) and the service peak organisation (National Disability Services).

The National Disability and Carer Alliance decided that it would concentrate on becoming the policy and strategy platform. A strong campaign was needed to directly lobby all members of parliament, to bring on board all people with disabilities, carers and services in every corner of Australia and to include the general community. So the Alliance set up the ‘Every Australian Counts Campaign’. The Campaign focused on building a mass mobilisation of support, targeted lobbying, plus running a highly effective grassroots level of campaigning.

We knew things were moving when the Rudd Government announced in November 2009 that they were referring the idea for the insurance scheme to the Productivity Commission. Some of us had mixed views about this, as the Commission wasn’t known for its social analysis. Hard-nosed economists one and all, the scheme had to stack up or it wouldn’t get up.

And it did stack up according to Patricia Scott, the very proper Commissioner leading the enquiry. She was a seasoned head of many government departments, who might have been expected to have seen it all. But she hadn’t. Patricia was truly outraged by the absolute chaos in disability: by the unfairness of the system and by the tragedy of the lives wasted from unmet need. She and John Walsh, who joined the team as a Commissioner, called the system broken and the Commission Report called for reform in the form of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Written by Dr Rhonda Galbally. Dr Galbally founded the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and held a number of chairs, including Executive Director of the Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Foundation, Chair of the Royal Women’s Hospital and Chair of Philanthropy Australia. Dr Galbally received the Order of Australia in 1990. She is currently a chair of the NDIA board.

Extracted from “Building an Alliance to Achieve Major Disability Reform” by Dr Rhonda Galbally, for the book State of the Nation Essays for Robert Manne (2013) edited by Gwenda Tavan, Penguin Books Australia.

Photo Credit

Image of Julia Gillard taken Saturday 4 May 2013 by Sophie Deane, just after Ms Gillard and the Victorian Premier Denis Napthine had signed the National Disability Insurance Scheme for the state. Sophie, who has Down Syndrome, had met Julia Gillard previously and in the words of her father “…had taken quite a shine to her”. On the 4 May event, Sophie asked to borrow her father’s camera and took the shot as it is presented – it has not been cropped or changed in anyway. The photograph has been shared and re-tweeted online thousands of times. The photograph and information has been kindly provided by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra.

So I could ride, work and live

Not far to walk down Flinders Street to my office, but my wheelchair battery is running low. I see a modern low floor tram approach the accessible tram stop. I tell my personal assistant that we should save some time and jump on board. I board the train seamlessly, and settle into the spot reserved for frail, disabled and pregnant people.

I’m on my way to work. I have a real job and I’m paid according to an award. I know how hard it is for people with disabilities to find work, especially in a field that they are passionate about. My role is the perfect combination of youth work, disability advocacy and social policy. I think back to when I was at the special school, 13 years old, on an excursion to the local sheltered workshop. Teachers are telling us that this is our future, packing matchstick boxes five days a week for under a dollar an hour. Sadly, these kinds of work conditions are still commonplace for some people with disabilities.

It would not have been possible for me to work without individualised funding to employ a personal assistant to get me up in the morning, showered and dressed and to support me at work. The campaign for individualised funding, directed and controlled by the person with a disability, was a long and hard fight. I think of the late Rob McNamara, one of the prime movers in the establishment of Australia’s first attendant support service that made it possible for people to live independently in the community.

It wasn’t that long ago when people with disabilities in Australia were segregated in institutions, neglected and left to die. Abuse and neglect is still rife in disability services, hence a National Senate Inquiry, and institutionalisation still exists, but on a smaller scale. When it comes to support to live independently in this country, people still have to wait for too long for too little, but activists like the late Stella Young and Lesley Hall campaigned for a National Disability Insurance Scheme which is due to be rolled out over the next 4 years.

Riding as I am on an accessible tram, I know that this kind of transport is still too rare and that there aren’t enough accessible stops and their rollout is far too slow. They are almost non-existent in the outer parts of Melbourne, but in the city they are relatively easy to find. I remember the late Katie Ball who used to chain herself to trams, protesting with a megaphone, demanding accessible public transport, causing all kinds of disruption and yelling abuse at police for refusing to arrest her. I imagine Katie riding next to me, knowing that it was her that made this ride possible.

I’m only a minutes walk from work where I will be hosting a committee meeting of young disability advocates. I feel privileged to work with young people who will carry on the important work of the activists that came before them. Their desire to change the world and make it right for them is just as strong as it was for their predecessors. They know they have a right to an education, to a job, a decent income, and the necessary support to make choices about where and with whom they live. They know that rights are not achieved passively but through hard work, persistence and agitation.

But how well do they understand the past, how far we have come as a movement and the battles that were fought for them? The disability activist movement sadly is made much more of Elders past than present. Our impairments too often defeat us too early for the next generation to hear the stories of their predecessors. There lies a challenge for those of us old enough to know the past but still alive to speak about it.

I feel grateful for the activists, too many to mention here, who fought the battles so I didn’t have to. I imagine them on the tram with me, not in body but in spirit and as I ride out of the tram, I smile at them and say thank you.

Dedicated to Stella Young, Rob McNamara and Lesley Hall

By Dr George Taleporos

On the sticky note for this panel:

Dr George Taleporos is the manager of the Youth Disability Advocacy Service (YDAS) and has worked in this role since the service was established in 2006. He has a PhD in psychology and an Honours degree in sociology. George has 15 years of experience in disability advocacy, youth engagement, and disability service reform. George been published in a range of books and peer reviewed journals. He has a healthy interest in politics and was regular contributor ABC disability portal Ramp Up.

Photo Credits

  • Melbourne trams, old and new, Shutterstock.
  • Dr George Taleporos.

We Need You

My guide dog and I walked through the ticket barrier at Wynyard station last week with clear instructions for where I was meeting my friend. “I’ll meet you at the top of the escalator for the Carrington Street entrance of Wynyard,” Gemma had said. “It is on your left after you walk through the ticket barrier.”

Wynyard has a large open concourse between the ticket barriers and the Wynyard ramp, and I was not sure Arrow and I could find the escalators in question without assistance. She would want to go straight up the ramp, as we had done hundreds of times before.

So I asked at the ticket barrier- “could you please tell me where are the escalators for Carrington Street?”

“Where do you want to go?” replied the Attendant.

“I want the escalator up to Carrington Street,” I repeated.

“Yes, but where do you want to go,” he said.

“I’m meeting someone at the Carrington Street entrance,” I said, not really understanding why he needed to know.

“Ok,” he replied. “We’ve got a lift that will take you to that level.”

I’m sure this man was trying to help. But he, consciously or unconsciously, had made a decision that anyone else would make for themselves. He had decided that I and my guide dog could not use an escalator – something we do multiple times every day. He had excluded me.

Despite my reference to the escalator twice, he had decided that I needed to use the lift. His actions would result in me not arriving where I wanted to be – the top of the escalator.

This is a very minor example, which did not change my day much. I found someone else who showed me the escalator, and got to where I wanted to be.

But it is an example of something which happens many times every day to people with disabilities. Elizabeth Hastings, Australia’s first Disability Discrimination Commissioner, used to say that we swim in a sea of discrimination. People – consciously or unconsciously – make many choices which exclude us.

People park in accessible parking bays, removing the only parking option for people with mobility disabilities.

People leave obstructions such as shop displays, tables and chairs on footpaths, which people who are blind or have low vision run into, or who have mobility disabilities trip over or can’t get past.

People at meetings don’t use microphones when they are available, and exclude people with hearing impairments.

People stare at our difference – our skin condition, our wheelchair or our crutch.

People use words without pictures on signs, and exclude some people with learning or intellectual disabilities.

People use words like Mental, Insane, Retard or Spastic, or describe others as “turning a blind eye to my problem” or being “deaf to my concerns”. Language which hurts us, and sends a message that we are diminished because of our disability.

Laws and regulations sometimes, but not always, bar these actions. Or they provide a basis for people with disabilities to lodge complaints if we are discriminated against. But those laws do not stop the exclusion and discrimination from occurring. Because laws can change behaviours, but they cannot change attitudes.

We can campaign all we like in the disability sector. We can successfully lobby politicians to enact laws such as the NSW Disability Inclusion Act, or provide support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But without you, those benefits are significantly reduced if you make the choice – consciously or unconsciously – to exclude us.

Just like The Beatles sang, we need you.

Published here for this exhibition with permission from Graeme Innes.

On the sticky note for this panel:

Graeme Innes is Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, a human rights activist and a Don’t Dis My Ability campaign Ambassador. (This blog was originally published on the “Don’t Dis My Ability” campaign website.)

Photo credit

Graeme Innes

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